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Entries in teaching English in Japan (7)

Friday
Jan032014

Why does Japanese use "Chinese" Characters?

Ema (絵馬) are small wooden plaques on which prayers or wishes are written. Note how a variety of writing systems are used.

   One thing that comes up time and time again when otherwise bright people who are merely not familiar with Japan read my writing is the issue of why the Japanese language uses "Chinese characters". 
   "What?" they invariably comment. "I thought this was supposed to be Japanese . . . Is this Japanese or is this Chinese? I don't get it."
   Don't worry. I asked the same question twenty-two years ago. (For more on the Japanese writing system, scroll down.)
   I'm curious: were I to write "Yada yada yada was written in kanji", would readers have a better idea about what I was saying or would they be just as confused? I welcome your thoughts.

 

 

 

   Every day I hear Japanese complain, “Eigo-wa muzukashii.” (English is difficult.)

   I suppose for non-native speakers of the language, English can be hard to master. This blessed tongue of mine is a hodgepodge of languages—Germanic, Romance and Celtic—making the spelling and grammar a confused mess that is not only cumbersome for learners but for native speakers alike.

   BUT! The Japanese language is so much more muzukashii. Our list of irregular verbs and odd spelling rules cannot even begin to burden a student the way the Japanese writing system hinders foreigners who try to master it.

   Of the more than five thousand different languages out there in the world, the most difficult one to read is Japanese.

   It’s not unusual to find a single sentence chockablock with Hiragana (ひらがな), Katakana (カタカナ), Kanji (漢字), Rômaji (also known as the alphabet), and even Arabic numerals. While hiraganakatana, and rômaji are straight-forward enough and can be mastered in less than a week, what really makes Japanese so hellish for learners is the fact that unlike the pictograms in Chinese, known as hànzi (漢字), where most characters have one basic reading, almost all Japanese kanji have several possible, often unrelated readings.

   Take the kanji for “I”. In Chinese 我 is pronounced wǒ. In Japanese, however, it can be pronounced: aaréga,wawaré, and waro. The character for “food/eat” 食 is read shí in Chinese, but can be read: ukaukekeshi,jikishokukukuisutaha and so on, depending on context. And while the kanji for “go”, 行 can be read in a number of similar ways in Chinese—xínghánghanghéng—in Japanese it can be read in the following ways: gyôokonayuyukiyukuian, and, who knows, possibly more. 

   Kids in Japan must master 1,006 of the 2,136 different characters, the so-called jôyô kanji,[1] by the end of elementary school and the remainder in junior high school.

   Think about that.

   It can take up to nine years of education for a Japanese child to become literate in his own language, far longer than it takes an American to learn how to read English. By comparison, hangul (한글) the Korean writing system can be mastered for the most part in a single day. If you’re determined enough, that is. I taught myself how to read (though not quite understand) hangul during a trip I took in the mid 90s. Riding on the high-speed train connecting Busan in the south of the country to Seoul in the north, I compared the Romanization of the station names and the Chinese characters with the hangul. By the time I reached Seoul a few hours later, I could read the Korean script. Piece of cake!

   No other language offers as overwhelming a barrier to entry as Japanese does when it comes to its writing system. As a result, students of the language are often forced to focus on speaking alone. They cannot reinforce what they learn by, say, reading books or magazine and newspaper articles the way you can with other languages.

   If they ever try to do so, however, as I did, they’ll find that written Japanese is a very different animal from the spoken language.

   Open up any book, even a collection of casual, humorous essays by Murakami Haruki for example, and you’ll bump up against “ーde-aru” (ーである). I hadn’t heard of this copula[2] until I started trying to read things other than textbooks and manga.

   De-aru, which is just another way of say desu (ーです) but in a more formal and rigid way that is suitable for reports or making conclusions, is only the beginning. (You can learn more about de-aru here.) While I can generally catch almost everything that is being said to me or what is said on TV even when I’m not really paying attention,[3] written Japanese takes concentrated effort to comprehend and sometimes up to three perusals[4] to get a firm grasp on what the writer is trying to convey.

   Even if you’re not interested in learning how to read Japanese, just trying to master the spoken language can provide you with years of headaches.

   Thinking I could master the language in my first three months or so in Japan, I dove headfirst into my studies almost as soon as I arrived, taking sometimes two to three private lessons a week.

   At the time, the selection of textbooks for learners of Japanese was extremely limited. While I had a good set of dictionaries called the Takahashi Romanized “Pocket” Dictionary—the only kind of pockets they would conceivably fit in were the pockets you might find on the baggy pants of a circus clown—the textbook I had to work with couldn’t have been more irrelevant.

   Written for engineers from developing countries invited by the government to study and train in Japan, it contained such everyday vocabulary as “welding flux”, “hydraulic jack” and “water-pressure gauge”. The phrases taught in the textbook were equally helpful:

 

Q: ラオさんは何を持っていますか。

            Rao-san-wa nani-o motteimasuka

                        What is Rao-san holding.

A: ラオさんはスパナを持っています。

            Rao-san-wa supana-o motteimasu

Rao-san is holding a spanner.

 

   In all of my twenty years in Japan, I have never once used this phrase. I haven’t used a spanner or a wrench for that matter, either. Nor have I met anyone named Rao.[5]

   But, the biggest shortcoming of the textbook was its desire to have learners of Japanese speak the languagepolitely.

   And so, the less casual -masu (−ます) and -desu (—です) form of verbs triumphed. If you wanted to ask someone what he was doing, the textbook taught you to say:

 

あなたは、なにをしていますか?

(Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka?)

 

   I practiced this phrase over and over: Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka? Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka? Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka? Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka? Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka?

   Armed with this new phrase, I accosted a group of children in a playground and asked, “Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka?

   Crickets.

   A few months later I was diligently studying Japanese in that most effective of classrooms—a girlfriend’s bed—when I learned that people didn’t really say Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka, especially to children much younger than themselves. No, they said, “Nani, shiteru no?” or something like that, instead.

   After about a year of studying the language, I could manage. I certainly wasn’t what I would call fluent, but I was no longer threatened by death or starvation. When I moved to Fukuoka, however, I bumped up against a new and very unexpected wall: hôgen. The local patois, known as Hakata-ben, is one of the more well-known of Japan’s many bens, or dialects.

   When the people of Fukuoka wanted to know what you were doing, they didn’t say anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka or even nani, shiteru no. They said, “Nan shiyô to?” (なんしようと) or “Nan shon?” (なんしょん).

   Let me tell you, it took quite a few years to graduate from saying “Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka?” to “Nan shiyô to?” And that, of course, was only the beginning. It took me nearly a decade to figure out what 〜んめえ (~nmê) and ばってん (batten) meant.

 

   Example:

 

    博多弁: 雨なら、行かんめーと思うとるっちゃばってん、こん様子なら降らんめーや。

    Hakata-ben: Ame-nara, ikanmê to omôtoruccha batten, kon yôsu nara, furanmê ya.

    標準語: 雨なら行くまいと思ってるのだが、この様子だと雨は降らないだろう。

    Standard: Ame nara, ikumai to omotteru-no daga, kono yôsu dato, ame wa furanai darô.

    English: I was thinking of not going if it rained[6], but it doesn’t look like it’s going to rain (after all).

 

   My Japanese grandmother would say something like, “Anta, ikanmê” (you aren’t going, are you) to which I’d grunt, “Un” (that’s right), when in fact I had every intention of going. The poor woman and I had conversations like that all the time.[7] When I finally figured that one out it was as if the scales had fallen from my eyes. Day-to-day life here has contained fewer misunderstandings ever since. ばってん (batten), by the way, means “but”.

   My experience with Hakata-ben has spawned a masochistic interest in Japanese dialects in general and I have been maintaining a blog on the topic for the past few years. Have a look-see!

   Anyways, the long and short of it is that while English is no cakewalk, it’s still much easier to learn than many other languages, such as Japanese. So, the next time you hear your students grumbling about how difficult English is, just tell them, “Oh, shuddup.”

 

   So, why "Chinese characters"?

   Mr. Wiki says: "The Japanese language had no written form at the time Chinese characters were introduced, and texts were written and read only in Chinese. Later, during the Heian period however, a system known as kanbun emerged, which involved using Chinese text with diacritical marks to allow Japanese speakers to restructure and read Chinese sentences, by changing word order and adding particles and verb endings, in accordance with the rules of Japanese grammar."

 


[1] 常用漢字, jôyô kanji, are the Chinese characters designated by the Ministry of Education for use in everyday life.

[2] A copula is a word used to link a subject and predicate, as in “John is a teacher”, where “John” is the subject, “a teacher” (actually a predicative nominal), the predicate and “is”, the copula. (Don’t worry, I had know idea what a copula was either until I started studying Japanese.)

[3] Unless it’s a period piece and the actors are using Edo Period Japanese.

[4] I use the word “perusal” to imply thoroughness and care in reading. So many Americans today mistakenly assume the word means “to skim”. It does not, it does not, it does not. So, for the love of God, stop it! Same goes for the word “nonplussed”. If you’re not a hundred percent certain of the meaning—and even if you are (over confidence is America’s Achilles heel)—don’t use it. Chances are you’re probably mistaken.

[5] I eagerly await his arrival, though. For when I find him, I will surely ask, “ラオさん、何を持っていますか?”

[6] I have intentionally translated this in the manner that Japanese speak—namely “I was thinking about notdoing” rather than the more natural “I wasn’t thinking about doing”—to make the original sentences easier to understand.

[7] Incidentally, while in Tôkyô I chatted up a girl from Gifu who told me that they also used the same ~nmêverb ending. Her friend from Hokkaidô had never heard it before.

Sunday
Dec302012

My friend, the call girl

   Yuko is visibly upset when she comes in and sits down across from me.

   “What’s the matter,” I ask.

   “My friend.”

   “What about your friend?

   “My friend is a . . .”

   “Is a what?”

   “She’s a . . . Oh, I don’t know what the word is in English.”

   I hand her my pocket electronic dictionary.

   “My friend is a call girl.”

   “Huh? A call girl?”

   “Yes.”

   “Your friend is a prostitute?”

   “A what?”

   “A prostitute is a shôfu.”

   “A shufu?”

   “Not shufu, a housewife. Shôfu, a prostitute.”[1]

   “Shôfu? No, no, no! She’s not a shôfu! She’s a call girl.”

   “Show me that dictionary,” I say. “Oh, she's a ‘coward’.”

   “That’s what I said!”

 


[1] Shôfu (娼婦) is another word for baishun (売春) which means prostitute. Shufu (主婦) means housewife.

Friday
Aug242012

Pulling Teeth

   Teaching Reina’s classes has been an equally dismal experience. Most of her students have been so reluctant to speak up they've made me feel as if I am trying to rip the molars out of their jaws rather than merely chat them up. Some of the students refuse to even offer a nod, let alone a “yes” or a “no”, whenever I ask them even the simplest of questions.

    It was infuriating at first. With so much bad blood lingering between Reina and myself, I didn’t put it beyond her to have sabotaged the classes by telling the kids to give me a hard time.

    One of the “better” classes goes like this: after fifteen minutes of what can generously be called “free conversation” to loosen the buggers up, we move on to an exercise in the text that covers weekend activities. I set the text up before having them read it by drawing the kids' dissipating attention to the picture at the top of the page. I then ask them what they think is going on in the picture.

   They have no idea.

   I suggest that they make simple comments about what they see. Naturally, no one volunteers. I point to one of the boys in the classroom. He twists his head to the side, sucks air through his teeth, then tells me he doesn't understand. In Japanese, of course: “Sah, wakaran.”

   When that doesn’t work, I have them read through the conversation after which I ask them a few simple comprehension questions. The more general questions are met with blank, somewhat frightened looks, so I give up and ask safe “yes” and “no” questions. Finally, I round up the exercise by expanding the key phrases and so on. Once we’ve gotten through all that, I turn to a bone thin, calcium white seventeen-year-old.

   “So Eri, tell me everything you can about last weekend . . . What did you do? Where did you go? Who did you spend it with? Anything, tell me anything you like!” I'm hesitant to overload the poor girl with too many questions as it often causes the more timid of students to freeze up, to withdraw within themselves, like a doe awash in the glow of the headlights of an on-coming 18-wheeler.

   Eri looks up slowly from the table with those deep-set, nervous eyes of hers and, not quite stating, more like probing with a cane in the dark, replies, “I . . . I . . . didn't . . . do . . . anything?”

   “C'mon. You weren’t in a coma, were you? Ha-ha-ha.” The joke smacks flatly up against a cold wall of silence. “So tell me, Eri, when did you wake up? What did you eat for breakfast? What did you do after you ate it?”

   The machinery in her head creaks, rusting cogs ache into worn grooves, and with a slow jerking motion the wheels begin to inch forward: “I woke . . . up . . . at . . . nine-thirty . . . and . . . took a shower?”

   “Yes, yes, and then?”

   “I . . . ate . . . breakfast . . . I had rice and miso soup and rice for breakfast . . . then I studied?”

   “Finally progress!”

   “P-pro-goo?”

   “Ah, never mind that.”

   “Mindoh?”

   “Yeah, never mind that either. I was joking. Jokku.”

   “Don’ mindoh? Jokku?”

   “Yes, yes, jokku. I was joking.” Things can get out of hand if you let them get caught up on one thing. Best to keep moving: “So, what did you study? What did you study?”

   “I . . . studied . . . English . . . for two hours?” she continues with excruciating slowness. But, hey, she's burning up the minutes here, like a big Chevy Suburban lumbering along at 6 miles to the gallon. Atta go, girl!

   With all the effort I can muster I suppress a yawn, then turn to Tsuyoshi, a rather bright high school boy who speaks relatively good English, and ask, “And, what did you do?”

   “I woke up at two, ate lunch, slept again. Woke up again, had dinner, took a bath, then went to bed.”

   “That’s it?”

   “Yes.”

   Ladies and gentlemen, I present you the future of Japan.

 

© Aonghas Crowe, 2011. All rights reserved. No unauthorized duplication of any kind.

注意:この作品はフィクションです。登場人物、団体等、実在のモノとは一切関係ありません。

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

A Woman's Nails is now available on Amazon's Kindle.

Read more excerpts from A Woman's Nails here:

 

Wednesday
Feb292012

懐かしい、これ

I wrote this about six years ago at a time when I was writing a lot in Japanese. (I'll try to post a translation one of these days.) Enjoy. 

彼女がやって来る。グループレッスンなのに生徒は彼女しかいない。最近、こういうことが多くてときどき心配している。早く仕事を変えた方がいいといつも思っている。5年間そう思っているけど、まだちっとも動こうとしていない。僕はバカなのか怠けものなのかよく分からない。とにかく早く仕事を変えた方がいいと思う。

生徒の人数は特に少なくないけれど、確かに多くない。言うまでもなく多い方はいい方です。人数が多いとき、各クラスはにぎやかで楽しいから早く終わる。多いとき、収入がよくて、何でもする余裕がある。1か月、2か月間を休んでもまだまだ大丈夫です。今は、ながい連休をとるのが難しい。働かないとお金が入らない。

いつも一人の生徒しか出席しないとこういうことを考えている。

「今日もあなただけだよ」

「わい、ラッキー!」

彼女はラッキー。僕はどうやてもやし炒めをおいしくするのかを悩んでいる。

彼女が来たとき僕は氣志団のライブをDVDで見ていた。

「だれですか?」

「氣志団です。知っている?」僕は最近氣志団の大ファンになっちゃった。

「名前はしっているけど。初めて聞いてるけど。先生、どうやって『初めて聞く』をいうの?」

「It's my first time to hear them.」

「そう、そう。ファストタイム」

「It's my first time to hear them.」

「そう、そう。ファストタイム」

僕は紅茶とお菓子を出して、彼女と一緒に座る。僕のレッスンはかなりやすい。その上、紅茶とインポートスナックなどをだしてあげる。教室の雰囲気も抜群。生徒が多くなくてとてもへん。6人が坐れるテーブルに二人が座ってる。デートみたい。

彼女は20代後半で、顔は悪くない、スタイルはすばらしいほど、グラビアモデルだったらビックリしない。そういうレベルの女です。お互いに付き合ってる人がいるから僕は手を出すのを考えていない。実は出したいと思わない。でも、こういうとき、二人きりのとき、手を出したら、どうなるだろうと思ってしまう。でも、したくない。時間もないし、生徒も減ってきてデートをする余裕もないからです。

「What's new?」と聞くと「この前、友達のパーてイーに行った」と彼女が答える。

「You went to your friend's birthday party?」

「はい。」

ホワイトボードがださいからホワイトボードのかわりに真っ白のMacデスクトップを使っている。部屋にぴったりです。真っ白のイタリア製カーテルテーブルと白いデンマーク製のアーンヤコブセン椅子とよく似合う。この部屋のインテリアにお金をかけ過ぎた。4つの椅子が使われていないとき、そのことを痛感する。マックに「I went to my friend's birthday party.」を書くと彼女は「I went to my friend's birthday party」と言う。

「Where did you go?」

「いつ?」

「No, where?」生徒はこれをいつも間違われている。どこでやったかときくといつやったのを答えて来る。いつやったのかを聞くとどこでやったのを言う。生徒さんがわざといたずらをしていると他の説明がない。クラスが終わったら、皆がエレベーターの中「うふふ、先生を悩ませたね~」といってるちがいない。日本語で話す時、5とか4とか6言うと相手はときどき僕が何を言ったのか聞き取れないみたい。電話番後は...8045ですが、相手は65?と確認する。8045と再び言うとまた相手は65を聞き間違う。どうやって4と6が紛らわしくなったのか理解できない。つい最近の現象なんです。「When」と「Where」もこの一年間の問題です。耳はもともと良くなかったから、原因は僕かもしれない。これを考えるとやっぱりこの仕事をやめた方がいい。早めに。

「あ、すみません。ソリー」

「So, where did you go?」

「プロバンス。ケヤキ通りにある。プロバンス知っている?」

「Do you know Provence? or Have you been to Provence?」これもマックにタイプをする。

読みながら、彼女は「Have you been to Provence?」と聞く。

「No, but I want to go. How is the mood?」

「食べ物ですか?おいしかったです。スープが本当においしかった。」

「Not food. How was the mood? 雰囲気、ムード」

「あ、ソリー。よかったです。It was very nice. でも、あたしはふじわらの方が好き。」

「I like Fujiwara better.」

「先生も?」

「No, no, no. I've never been to Fujiwara. Not, me, you . . .」

「I like Fujiwara better.」

「Really? Why?」

「ケーキが美味しいから」

「The cake's good?」

「そう、グッドケーキ。」

「You like strawberries?」

「うん、大好き!」

「Today's your lucky day」と僕が言って、冷蔵庫からイチゴデニッシュをとってあげる。

「今日もラッキー。先週もラッキーでした。サンキュー、サンキュー。」

二人でそのイチゴデニッシュを食べる。ときどき、僕の仕事はなのかわからなくなる。僕はそもそも何の役割を果たしてると頭をかく。僕はホスト?喫茶のウエーター?ロンリーハートの仮/臨時ボイフレンド?それか悩み相談のカウンセラー?僕は何をやっているかわけわからないけど、きっと/確かに英語の先生じゃない。彼女はここまで過ごした30分の間、殆ど英語使ってない。これは未解決の神秘です。なんで、日本人は英会話のレッスンを受けるけど、日本語ばかり話してる?

僕はまだまだ日本語のレッスンを受けてる。12年間かけて勉強してきたが自分の日本語に自信がないから、今までも週1、2回学校に通ってる。先生に「お元気ですか」と聞かれると「Fine, thanks」と言わずに「ぼちぼちです」とか「あまっし」とか「おい、聞かないでよ」と答える。でも、僕は自分の生徒に「How ya doin'?」とか「How are you?」とか「How's everything?」など聞いたら「元気だよ」とか「まあまあ」とか「今日はとてもブルーです」生徒は言う。生徒さんたちはいつも「なぜあたしの英語が上達しないの?」と零してる。もちろん日本語で。

Saturday
Oct222011

Hifumi, the Little Diner That Could

   When I first came to Japan I taught at a small privately run English School which only by the grace of God remains in business to this day.

   I taught five to six lessons a day, five days a week, back then and earned about ¥250,000—the minimum wage for that kind of work—minus ¥40,000-plus for rent and utilities.[1] In addition to being my employer, the feckless Mr. “Bakayama” (a nickname I coined for the man meaning “Foolish Mountain”; his real name was Nakayama) was also my landlord, like a two-bit Milton Hersey. As I was F.O.B., fresh-off-the-boat, I didn’t have to pay any income or residence taxes.

   Located in a sleepy corner of Kitakyūshū City, the neighborhood where I worked had a few restaurants and diners that were alright. There was one place that did a pretty good kara’age karii (curry and rice with fried chicken). My two co-workers “Blad” (Bradley) and “Hoka” (Geoffrey) and I would have lunch there after our “teachers meeting” every Wednesday and bitch about Bakayama.

   Lots of good memories. Blad and Hoka would return to the States the following spring and when my contract was up I moved on to Fukuoka.

   I took a job at another small English school called Bell American School. Not a bad operation and a huge improvement over Bakayama’s Little School That Barely Could. Unfortunately, I was the token gaijin (foreigner) at Bell in an office staffed with psychopathic women. (For more on this, go here.)

   I worked six days a week at the new school, but only had two to three classes a day. I also made a bit more, and with all the free time I was able to take on private lessons to supplement my income.[2]

   There were not only more restaurants near my new workplace, but they were much better than those in Kitakyūshū. What’s more, the affluent women I was now teaching were something of gourmands and delighted in taking me to new restaurants.

   I was at Bell for about four years before striking out on my own. Life continued to improve: more money, more freedom, better restaurants. I was now living in Daimyō, an area of Fukuoka City which is said to have more restaurants and bars (and hair salons) per square kilometer than anywhere else in Japan. The money and eats were very, very good.

   Before the Internet became as widely used as it is today, people would call me up to ask what restaurant I recommended, or where such-and-such bar was located. Thanks to smartphones I rarely have to perform this service now. It’s just as well because I seldom go out anymore what with my being the father of a young child (who happens to be in my lap fiddling with the keys as I try to write this).

   Since last spring I have been teaching full-time at a private women’s college.

   The conditions at the college are very good. I teach a mere two to three one-hour classes a day, four days a week, and get paid considerably more for the “work” than I did as part-time instructor with a heavier class load. (Odd, the way that works.) Where I was once a grunt in the Eikaiwa trenches nearly two decades ago I am now a low-ranking commissioned officer of sorts.

   The only drawback of the change in employment, as I have mentioned before, is the fact that the college is located in the heart of a culinary desert. The only eatery that is within a reasonable walking distance is the Hifumi Shokudō (一二三食堂, lit. One, Two, Three Diner), a miserable little place that doesn’t appear to have changed a thing since it opened sometime in the late Shōwa Period (early 80s?).

   Every thing about the place is odd.

   For one, the servings at Hifumi are huge, the kind of servings growing boys fortify themselves with. Trouble is, there isn’t a boy to be seen anywhere near the diner. Come to think of it, in the dozen times I have been to Hifumi, I have yet to see any other customers. Makes you wonder how they have been able to stay in business all this time.

   What's more, most of the time when I pop into Hifumi, I find the place abandoned. Sometimes I can hear the distant sound of a television coming from another room. (Hifumi, like so many of these diners from olden days, is on the first floor of proprietor's home.) I often have to manufacture some racket—move the table about so that it grates against the concrete floor, or throw the sliding door open with a crash—before the goblins working in the Hifumi kitchen stir to life.

   The only item on the menu that I can safely recommend is the “Service Set” (☆☆☆) which includes two chicken cutlets, salad, rice, and soup for the low, low price of ¥450 ($4.50). With such rock-bottom prices, it’s no wonder Hifumi can’t afford to remodel.

   Part of me wants to advise them on how they might bring in some of the four-thousand-odd girls attending the local school, but then Hifumi has managed to survive the two Lost Decades since the end of the Shôwa Period. Perhaps, they know what their doing.

   The Hifumi Fried Rice. ☆

   The Hifumi Omuraisu. Looks as if it's been stabbed. ☆☆

   The Hifumi Chicken Rice ☆☆

 


[1] The exchange rate at the time was about ¥130 to the dollar, so I made roughly $1,900 a month.

[2] With my salary and moonlighting, I was earning about ¥350,000 per month. The yen would rise as high as ¥80 to the dollar in a year’s time, meaning in dollar terms I was making over four grand a month. I was working half as much, yet making double.

Monday
Feb212011

Chidori Ashi

   This morning it’s a group of beginner's, made up of six housewives ranging in age from their late thirties to early fifties.

   When the oldest of the group, Mieko, asks me how I spent the weekend, it is tempting to say that it was spent lying naked on a wooly throw rug tossing about with a girl I'd just met. I tell her, instead, that I spent Sunday studying Japanese, which produces a cackle of praise from the students. Mieko says she respects me and wishes her husband were as diligent as I was.

   The woman should be careful of what she wishes for.

   Mieko then tells me that her own weekend was horrible.

   "Really?” I say. “Why's that?"

   "Finished dinner, my husband . . . "

   "After dinner," I correct.

   "What?"

   "After dinner," I repeat. "Not finished dinner, after dinner."

   "I see. Thank you." MIeko looks down at her notebook, studies what she has prepared for today's lesson, then starts over: "Finished dinner, my husband . . ." I tap the surface of my desk to convey my irritation. The message seems to get across. "Oh, I'm sorry," she says. "After . . . After dinner, my husband . . . How do you say . . . chidori ashi?"

   It's thanks to good old Mie that I know chidori ashi, literally chicken legs, means stagger. "My husband staggered," I answer.

   "What?"

   "Staggered."

   Mieko says she doesn't understand.

   "Your husband, he was drunk, right? Yopparai, right?"

   "Yes, very, very yopparai," she says, laughing.

   "Okay then, he staggered."

   "Sutahgah . . . ?"

   "Staggered."

   "Sutahgahdo?

   "Yes, staggered. He staggered."

   "What does that mean?"

   I feel like a dog chasing its own tail.       

   "What does that mean?" she asks again.

   "Staggered? You're husband was drunk. He staggered. Chidori ashi."

   "Yes, yes. Chidori ashi. How do you say that in English?"

   I'm am this close to going losing it. "Chidori ashi means Stagger."

   "Huh?"

   "Chidori ashi equals sutahgahdo." This really is how they speak English here.

   "Oh, I see, I see. Thank you. Finished dinner, my husband staggered . . ." 

 

Excerpt from A Woman's Nails. To read more here.

© Aonghas Crowe, 2010. All rights reserved. No unauthorized duplication of any kind.

注意:この作品はフィクションです。登場人物、団体等、実在のモノとは一切関係ありません。

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

A Woman's Nails is now available on Amazon's Kindle.

 

Friday
Oct152010

Throw me a feckin' bone, will ye!

   We’d just had a three-day weekend, so I asked the kid if he had done anything fun.

   “I went out,” he replied.

   “Out?”

   “Yes.”

   “Where to?”

   “The park.”

   “You went out to a park.”

   “Yes.”

   “By yourself?”

   “No. With my friend.”

   “You went to the park with your friend?” I said. “What for? A walk?”

   “No.”

   “Then, what?”

   “Baseball.”

   “Baseball? Were you and your friend playing catch?”

   “No. We played baseball.”

   “The two of you?”

   “No.”

   “No?” The conversation was going nowhere fast. “Who else were playing with?”

   “Pardon me?” he said, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. They were so clouded over with smudges I don’t know how he could possibly have seen through them.

   I asked him how many people he was playing baseball with.

   “Ten,” he answered.

   “Well that makes more sense. So you went to the park with some friends and played baseball.”

   “Yes.”

   “Friends from school here, from this university?”

   “No.”

   “Friends from high school?”

   “No.”

   “Who were you playing with, then?”

   “I don’t know.”

   “What d’ya mean you don’t know?”

   “Do they go to another university?” I asked, wondering if he had taken part in some kind of inter-collegiate game, or something.

   “Maybe.”

   “Maybe?” I gave my head a good shake, and tapped the side of it as trying to dislodge water from my ears. “Who the hell are these people you played with? Are they strangers?”

   “No.”

   “No?” C’mon, throw me a feckin’ bone! “Friends?”

   “Yes, friends.”

   “And they don’t go to school here.”

   “Yes.”

   “Yes, they do?”

   “No.”

   “No, they don’t?”

   “Yes.”

   Argh!

   “Okay, let me get this straight,” I said, taking a deep breath to keep my blood from boiling over. “You went to a park with ten of your friends to play baseball, right?”

   “Yes.”

   Progress!

   “And these friends, where did you meet them?”

   “At the park.”

   “Agh!! I mean, where did you first meet them?”

   “In kindergarten.”

   Let me tell you, teaching English in Japan can sometimes feel like dentistry.